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SALT advances African science and economy

Wed, 12/18/2013 - 3:47pm
Allegra Sparta, Editorial Intern

We’re not talking about the seasoning, though I’d think more than just African economy would benefit if salt was still used as currency. SALT is an acronym for the South African Large Telescope — not the most creative name, but very simple and direct. Advancements in the field of astronomy are being seen in several different countries on the vast continent in addition to South Africa’s large observatory, and scientists are taking notice.

SALT, one of the largest single-optical telescopes in the world, is part of the South African Astronomical Observatory (SAAO). It’s able to detect a candle flame burning on the moon as well as lights a billion times too faint for the human eye to see.

It might seem a bit odd to hear about a “science boom” in Africa, where many impoverished countries exist, but scientists are eager to set up shop there. What’s their rationale?

For starters, the environment is ideal for astronomy. The SAAO is located in Sutherland, a town that’s about a four-hour drive outside of Cape Town. This town is so isolated that the nuisance of light pollution is nonexistent, making the skies very dark so stars appear much clearer to the astronomers. Also, this location has a steady climate year-round with no extreme weather, allowing for predictable working conditions.

In addition to having perfect locations to set up observatories, African countries are ideal for astronomy because they see the economic benefits of building these telescopes and observatories. South African lawmakers believe that their country will be viewed as a “second-class” nation if they fail to invest in the sciences. Because of this, the government is slated to invest $26 million in astronomy over the next five years.

In 2018, construction of the Square Kilometer Array (SKA) will begin. The SKA is a powerful radio telescope that will add to the scientific contributions already being made by the SALT. The construction of this device will not only create jobs, but will attract scientists to the area, allowing for a population increase that stimulates local economy.

Nigeria, Egypt, Ethiopia, Kenya, and several other African countries have jumped on the astronomy bandwagon and permitted the construction of observatories of various sizes. These nations, previously associated with poverty, are now enjoying the benefits of economic growth. They have seen a shift from agriculture-based economy to one centered around industry and science. So, African nations reap the benefits of this influx of knowledge, both monetarily and in society, and the rest of us get to see some really clear pictures of space. Seems like a win-win.

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